I whisper in Jane’s ear across the center divider, “Don’t forget the olives.”
“Fuck off,” Jane says under her breath. “And a side of olives.”
Then comes the routine. It starts with the Carl’s Jr. Employee repeating Olives? several times and Jane repeating Olives several times. The word Olive exceeds its annual word count within 30 seconds.
That’s Jane’s most hated Lifetime bet. A Lifetime bet is a thing we created when we were sophomores in high school. It’s a simple bet. But the consequences last a lifetime. They aren’t horrible consequences, rather inconveniences that you learn to live with, like the olive bet. Jane missed a six-foot put. Now she has to request a side of olives whenever ordering food.
We pull up to the window and Jane hands over almost the exact change, shorting the minimum wage hero a penny. Power Move, she calls it. Jane grabs the brown bag, pokes in all the bubbles on her soda lid, and takes a bite that separates herself from all skinny girl stereotypes before throwing the car into drive with her elbow. She’s halfway through the burger by the third street light. You see, although Jane looks like she has just finished searching for a Grateful Dead record at a Gluten Free Garage sale, she eats like a monster.
Jane looks at me with a carelessly open mouth and then back at the road, “What’s your favorite color? Who’s your favorite band? Do you want a piece of gum?” This is Jane reminding me that she’s not the only one who has lost a Lifetime bet.
I answer her questions, always loyal to our system, “Brown. Hoobastank. I don’t chew gum.”
Brown asserted itself as my favorite color when I lost a best-out-of -100 game of rock, paper, scissors. Hoobastank became my favorite band—thus overstaying its welcome in 90s alternative rock history—when Jane ran a sub-six-minute mile. And I became the pretentious weirdo that denies a stick of gum (the bets were tailored to make me a horrible first date) when I bet Jane that she couldn’t finish 3 beers before the end of Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
She laughs, “Brown? Hoobastank? You don’t chew gum? Why do I hang out with you?”
That night, instead of going to our senior year homecoming dance, Jane and I sat in front of a muted TV. Our channel surfing landed on a female tennis match. Without any planning, we started screaming exaggerated tennis grunts. As my player served, I let out a, “Gaaaah!” Jane’s player responded with a backhand, “Heeep!” It was our version of Nintendo. Then, once the distinction between athletic grunt and animal sex noise became a blur, we started kissing—you know, the smooth and natural transition from grunting at a muted television. It wasn’t romantic. That was never a requirement for her.
Then we stopped.
Jane looked at me. She was quiet, this happened when her brain got loud. Jane would often be doing something mundane, like eating Jell-O or putting her hair in a bun, and then she’d have a philosophical rush that she’d have to explain. She erected her spine and focused her shoulders. She was tense, eagerly waiting for each word to make its way from her mind to her tongue. She went on to tell me how the most beautiful times come when thought is absent because action appears mandatory. She told me, when we let our minds rest we let our bodies live. She spoke the words of a hippy with the conviction of a preacher. To put her idea to practice, she came up with the idea of planning an unplanned action for each other, an action that would let our bodies live. On separate pieces of paper we wrote a random “call to action” for the other person without telling them what it was. We folded them, exchanged them, and put them deep in our back pockets, hoping to forget about it, and agreeing that the day we pulled it out we’d read it and complete it on the spot. At that moment, we would be forced to act, and our bodies would come to life. Then we unmuted the TV to hear the actual grunts. It was always disappointing.
That was a long time ago. I’m now graduated from college and working as an accountant for the California State Parks, living with my fiancé at my parents’ to save money for a house. I didn’t see Jane after that night. Her speech inspired the inclination to catch the end of homecoming. She ran there in her sports bra and jeans and met up with a friend.
Today—nine years after that night—I get a call on Skype. Jane is standing in the freezer aisle of the grocery store with a cart full of non-essentials. She angles the camera down at her bare feet and then zooms in on her hand holding my note from almost a decade ago, Take Off Your Shoes And Just Run. The camera bounces up and down during her race around the store and then she heads for the exit and then through the parking lot and then across the street and she just keeps running and laughing and smiling and living—thinking nothing, feeling everything. Forty minutes later, there’s a knock on my door and she’s dripping in sweat, standing on soon to be blistered feet, covered in a smile that looks like life.
She extends her arm and opens her palm, “Gum?” I smile, reach for it and get slugged in the chest, “Oh wait, you don’t chew gum, pussy!”
Jane came inside and sat on the couch. My fiancé had flown out to visit a cousin in Brooklyn earlier that day. I got Jane a wet towel to clean her feet. They were bleeding and the skin was dangling and they smelled. The side of her left pinky toe was sliced open. The insides of her nails were painted in layers of dirt. Her smile and her eyes hadn’t aged from high school. I got her some medicine for the pain.
Darren Nuzzo writes short stories and shorter bios.